Water issues emerge in Lee County

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Lee County residents who live just off U.S. Highway 82 on Cookville Road say they've been fighting their own personal water wars with county officials for the last several years to little or no effect.

Businessman Dale Richter came before the Lee County Board of Commissioners April 12 asking that officials look into complaints that have been circulating in the Deer Trace neighborhood about issues involving Clayton Homes on U.S. 82 and property adjacent to the modular home dealer that once was the site of a grocery store and mobile home park.

Richter and others in the neighborhood say the failure of Clayton Homes officials to build a holding pond on their property and the altered landscape on the now almost vacant lot just east of the dealer have left them susceptible to flooding and, in the case of resident Lamar Parker, with contaminated well water that his family is afraid to drink.

County officials, though, say they've recently addressed the root cause of the neighborhood's problems and have returned the natural flow of rain runoff under Cookville Road.

"We've been asking the county for years to do something, but nothing's been done," Richter said shortly after addressing the County Commission. "We even had one official (former Administrator Alan Ours) tell us the county had no jurisdiction on that property.

"We've contacted state and federal environmental officials and even the Army Corps of Engineers, but no one has tested to see what's on that (vacant) property and in the water that's running from that property onto our land."

Both Richter and Parker say that the owner of the lot on the eastern corner of the Highway 82/Cookville Road crossing had, after removing trailers from the property and clearing the land, hauled dirt onto the lot "for months at a time." That dirt, they claim, reversed the natural flow of rain runoff from a west-to-east direction and carried the runoff onto their land.

"They changed the natural flow of the water," Parker said. "That guy hauled load after load of dirt in here, and, being an old country boy, it looked like the dirt you'd see around hog pens. After he built the level of that property up and built a holding pond, water started running under Cookville Road from east to west, onto our property."

Richter said the dirt was moved in "from midnight to 1 or 2 in the morning, when no one was awake," and that it had been most likely placed on top of septic tanks that had never been removed from the former trailer park.

"I talked with a county official who told me, 'I don't want to know what's in that water'," Richter said. "And I've asked the county on a number of occasions to determine if those septic tanks were removed. I'd like to know the answer to that."

Justin Smith, an environmental health specialist with the Lee County Health Department, said he did not know if the septic tanks had been removed, but he noted that environmental law does not require their removal.

"There are natural microbes that would eat any sewage that was still in the tanks, so if there is no raw sewage currently going into them, they should not impact that land," Smith said. "Plus, the distance between the two properties should eliminate the possibility of the unused septic tanks impacting the water."

Parker, however, said he's had water issues since building his dream home in 1992, especially in the aftermath of the flood that hit the region in 1998.

"I had a pump that went bad, and when I replaced it I started getting muddy water in my house," Parker said. "I was told that with an older well, one with iron casing, ground water can sometimes seep into your well. I put a filter in, but that didn't stop it. So I put in a new well with PVC casing.

"With the new well that cost between $3,000 and $4,000, I put in a filter that cost $1,700 and a $1,300 ultraviolet light that's supposed to kill any impurities. But the water is still dark, and we bring bottled water in to drink. We've put up with that for years."

Carolyn Maschke, the public information officer for the Southwest Public Health District, said her office had documentation of testing conducted on Parker's well water in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and the results have been the same with each test.

"There's no evidence of chemical leakage," she said. "Certainly I'm not saying there aren't impurities in the water, but there's nothing that links the water with leakage from any kind of sewage."

Meanwhile, Lee Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander said county Public Works crews completed work last week on the property across from Clayton Homes that should return the natural flow of stormwater in the area.

"Public works went in and regraded that property on the east side of Cookville Road so that (runoff) water now flows away from the homes in question," Alexander said.

County Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said the county had contracted with EMC Engineering to structure a plan that would "divert the water back to its natural flow."

Leesburg Commissioner Betty Johnson, whose district includes some of the affected property, said she's been told the problem has been solved.

"From what I've been told, that issue has been taken care of," she said. "I've been out there to look at the property, and I've been assured that Public Works has done what needed to be done."

Richter, meanwhile, said he had a problem with taxpayers footing the estimated $16,000 to $20,000 bill that it cost to do the work on what is privately owned property. He also said the absence of a holding pond on the Clayton Homes property has added to the runoff problem.

But the co-owner/manager of the home dealership says there has never been a call for a holding pond on the property he bought in 1996.

"There was never a complaint until they dammed up that holding pond (across Cookville)," Shane Brinson said. "That changed the flow of the water. This is the first I've heard of anyone complaining about a holding pond on our property. We've never been required to dig a holding pond. It wouldn't make sense; you can't put a holding pond on wetlands."

Time will tell if the issue has been cleared up to everyone's satisfaction. But not everyone involved is convinced the area's problems are solved.

"We built our dream house, and we don't want to move," Parker said. "And now is not the time to move. What I'd like is for someone to give me some answers. We're taxpayers; we deserve answers.

"I do know one thing, though. If my land floods because of something this county failed to do, I'll sue the hell out of them."